Meet the Locals – Aubrey Martin, Christian Israelite and circumcisionist

One of the many, varied and nerdy things I love about being a Family History Librarian is the potential for discover, learning, and going down rabbit holes.

I was having a lovely little read of R.C. Lamb's Pioneers in Protest, or No Gains Without Drains, being letters mainly of complaint, culled from the archives of the Christchurch City Council, opens a new window, a charming and modest sliver of a book with, as the title suggests, several letters from concerned nineteenth-century Christchurch residents and short biographies of the letter writers. I particularly enjoyed this letter from tent-dweller Aubrey William Martin (the idiosyncratic capitalisation and exclamation is all Aubrey's own work!):

Christchurch, August 7th, 1866 To the Chairman of the City Council,

Sir having been called upon today by the Collectors of the city rate, for a rate of 11s 3d for living in a tent, such a thing I have never heard tell of before. I have lived in the Colony of Victoria, Australia for over 10 years where there was thousands of Tents & I never knew one single instance of a dweller in a Tent having to pay a Tax !! When a person is so poor as to be obliged to live in a Tent, I never knew of a single instance of them being called upon to pay a Tax !! I have been told by the collector I am valued at £15 per year, which thing is ridiculous, for I would sell it out & out for very little more than half the money. Moreover I am only on the ground on sufferance, liable to be removed at any time.

I am your ob'd Servant, Aubrey W. Martin

The details on Aubrey within "Pioneers in Protest" were somewhat sparse, so curiosity piqued I started some basic searching. First I found his 1904 death and his death notice in the Press showing a St Asaph Street address. Aubrey was no longer living in a tent and had reached the grand age of 72. Hurrah! He had a widow, Clara, who must have lived in the tent too and then I discovered they had children, quite a lot of them and they also must have spent some of their formative years under canvas. Clara (nee Kearney) and Aubrey had married in Melbourne in 1861 and the baby Martins born in New Zealand included Helen, John, Jedaiah, Rachael, Aubrey and William. 

Aubrey's death notice also mentioned he was the fourth son of the late Lieutenant John Martin of Ringfad, Ardglass, County Down in Ireland. This sounded quite fancy, not at all tent-y and a bit of a gift for as many of you know tracking Irish emigrants back to their townland can be mighty tricky. Aubrey left a probate giving his occupation as coal hawker and it also contained a death certificate (oh happy day!) showing his father was indeed Lieutenant John Martin and his mother was Christian Wilson. 

All good and dandy but the plot was about to get stranger and darker... Aubrey William Martin's main claim to Christchurch fame was that in 1875 an inquest was held on the sudden death of his infant son, also named Aubrey. Aged 8 days old the baby had died of shock and blood loss after Aubrey performed a DIY circumcision.

Aubrey identified as a Christian Israelite and following the tenets of his faith he had at 11.30am on the morning of April 18th attempted to circumcise his son. He had previously successfully performed this operation on two elder boys. The baby struggled and became ashen, opens a new window, and died before Dr Nedwill , opens a new windowcould attend. An inquest overseen by Coroner J. W. S. Coward Esq was held the same day and the jury returned a verdict of "Accidental death" and asked the Coroner to caution Aubrey to seek medical assistance for any future kitchen table circumcisions. Thankfully Aubrey and Clara went on to have only one more child, another boy William. All really quite shocking.

This brush with the law was not his first. In September 1867 Aubrey was charged with committing a violent assault upon his neighbour, Ruth Burrell. She claimed he struck her without provocation and nearly strangled her. She grabbed his whiskers in self-defense. He was fined 20 shillings as well as costs of £2, 10 shillings.

As a Christian Israelite these whiskers would have grown in great abundance, Christian Israelites were known in Australia as the "beardies", opens a new window as hair and beard trimming was forbidden within the sect. Even by the not inconsiderable hirsute standards of the day these dudes were hairy. The leader of the sect, John Wroe, is said to have had the catchcry "as the beard lengthens, the faith strengthens".

Wroe (in some instances followers of the church were known as "Wroeites") had started off as a Bradford wool comber, and the church's headquarters were initially in Lancashire. Dogged by controversy in England, Wroe claimed God had told him to procure virgins. He left for Australia and despite claiming he would live forever, died in Melbourne in 1863. The movement proved reasonably popular in Australia, and there is still a Christian Israelite church in Australia to this day. 

Less popular in New Zealand, the census of 1864 showed just 47 members of the church in New Zealand. By 1891, despite Aubrey's preaching efforts, the number had only risen to 55.

Aubrey's widow, Clara, died in 1915 aged 73. Aubrey and Clara with their daughter Helen, who died in 1896 aged 30, are buried in Linwood Cemetery. Their surviving daughter Rachel married a Hector Alexander McLean, and Jedaiah unsurprisingly encouraged people to call him Jeff.

At the time of their mother's death both William and John Martin were working as tailors in Christchurch.